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Posts Tagged ‘Insects’

Black crappie. Credit NYC DEC. 

by Erik Baard

 

This unfortunately named cousin of more celebrated sunfishes might want you to know that its name is derived from “crapet,” a word in the Quebecois dialect of French referring to species of the family Centrarchidae.

 

If I had my way, I’d just entirely rename the species as black scrappie, because you can’t have more moxie than this: one of its chief foods is the young of its own predators, such as northern pike and walleye. That’s right, “You gonna try’n eat me? Well, watch me eat your baby first!”

 

They also eat insects, crustaceans, and zooplankton.

 

If you plan to feast on crappies (apparently that’s more delicious than it sounds), you’ll have to venture outside of NYC. While Kissena Lake, Wolfe’s Pond, Silver Lake, Clove Lake, Prospect Park Lake, Van Cortlandt Lake, and other local freshwater bodies abound with this species, they are governed by “no kill,” catch and release policies. Use either plastic lures or live minnows, and seasoned anglers recommend “spider rigging,” that is arraying fishing poles in a spoke pattern from a single spot. Specialized hooks prevent damage to the fish.

 

Enjoy discovering this crepuscular species (seen in a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation image above) at dawn or dusk when they emerge from marsh grass areas, weed beds, or from under sunken logs and rocky ledges. They’re active all year long, even under a cover of ice (ice fishers love them), but start congregating and spawning in vegetative beds when temperatures reach over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That means this is a prime time to reel in a crappie. 

 

And remember, no laughing at their name. At least not while they’re dangling above the water surface and can hear you.

 

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Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Photo by Ted Gruber. 

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

I think anything with the word “night” in its name benefits from a bit of mystery by association. As if Yellow-crowned Night Herons needed the help. With gorgeous plumage and reliably picturesque harbor backdrops, these birds are a favorite of NYC Auduban/New York Water Taxi tours and individual birders.

 

Fellow LIC Community Boathouse volunteer Ted Gruber snapped this shot in Steinway Creek, where it was perched atop a collapsed dock. A solitary Black-crowned Night Heron was nearby as well. I’ve found the black-crowned variety to be more common, but having both in view was ample reward for our early start and two crossings through whirl-pool filled Hell Gate. Okay, so I admit I love going through Hell Gate at peak current.

 

Yellow-crowned Night Herons have been spotted at City Island, but I would imagine that Staten Island and its nearby islands in the Arthur Kill would also provide good habitat. Any other recent sightings?

 

We didn’t get to see this bird lunge at a crustacean, insect, mollusk, amphibian, or fish. The action happens in darkness for this species. Instead it (the sexes look alike) simply held its place in a stately fashion. The species is threatened in our area, but ironically it’s also more widely dispersed than before; when the Bermuda Night Heron went extinct, environmental authorities there imported this North American species and plugged it into the vacant ecological niche.

 

Yellow-crowned night herons lay their eggs in overhangs, whether a living bush or a jutting piling or beam. We didn’t see if this one had a blue-green clutch of eggs because getting that close would disturb it. The geese and mallards along the East River shores and on North Brother and South Brother islands had full nests, so perhaps there’s a decent chance that New York City has an upcoming generation of Yellow-crowned Night Herons warming in Steinway Creek?

 

I’ll write a more complete report on the Steinway Creek at a later date. Due to an imminent property sale, the city and state should aid Astorians in seizing a rare chance to ecologically restore the petroleum-despoiled, sewage-filled waterway and its surprisingly verdant southwest bank. Toss in a kayak launch, and you’ll have a constituency to keep it green, blue, and clean for neighborhood youth…human and heron.

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Northern Dusky salamander in leaf litter. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled that National Public Radio featured Nature Calendar’s quest for the Manhattan population of Northern Dusky salamanders (well camouflaged in leaf litter above) as part of its Earth Day coverage. Check out the online story produced by NPR’s hot new show The Bryant Park Project:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89830807

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by Erik Baard

Amphibians serve as a bellwether for ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands, and the news is rarely good. The Global Amphibian Assessment of 2004 found that we may have lost 120 species since the 1980s. Another 32% of remaining species are threatened with extinction, and 43% are suffering population declines. That’s an environmental body blow when you consider that salamanders alone are the largest contributor to vertebrate biomass in many North American forests. Part of this crisis seems traceable to global causes like climate change and ozone depletion. More often the problems are tied to local pollutants and habitat fragmentation.

Yet we bring you a quietly happy story of survival in, of all places, Manhattan.

Back in 1944, a 21-year old German immigrant naturalist named Carl Gans noted the presence of dusky salamanders living on a muddy slope in northern Manhattan. They prefer areas with limestone and need copious water, but only if it’s very slow flowing and not laden with silt. Weed-choked streams and bogs are good habitats. Seepages, that is gradually inclining hillsides where water saturates a broad swath of soft earth, are also places where a dusky salamander seeker might find quarry under rotting logs, leaf litter, and some loose stones. This common species is often known as the “pit bull of salamanders” for its stocky body and large jaw. Like many salamanders, they lack lungs and so breathe through their moist, delicate and permeable skin when they outgrow their newborn gills.

The duskies were probably a fun find for Gans, but he quickly moved on to adventures with sharks and exotic reptiles in a stellar, globetrotting career researching biomechanics and evolution. New York City had big ideas too. Over the next six tumultuous decades we built highways and iconic skyscrapers, birthed punk rock and hiphop, and rode waves of crime and condos with equal gusto.

Rough stuff for salamanders. Nearby pavement can accelerate water flow and sweep away salamanders, their young, and the small insects and worms they eat. Pesticides and herbicides cause mutations, behavioral aberrations, or outright kill them. Hydrocarbons and salts running off roads poison them. Clear cutting trees and shrubs denies them the protective shade they require. Urbanization finds a thousand ways to do them in. Even the gentler suburb of Westchester County saw its dusky salamanders nearly vanish in the latter twentieth century. The Manhattan area of the salamanders’ habitat became known for prostitution and illegal dumping, including many stripped cars (since cleared).

Despite the odds, Ellen Pehek, senior ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, led a little expedition alongside the Harlem River Drive to revisit the site. Astonishingly, the salamanders were still there.

“That was quite a find. I think people assumed they were gone, but they just hadn’t gone back to check on them,” Pehek said. “The lesson here is that we can protect them without giving up recreational activities. We can plan around these habitats to avoid certain places and all coexist. If they can live in Manhattan, we know we can coexist.”

Pehek was kind enough to share the location of this rare habitat with me – not that it was easy to find, even with directions. “Landmarks” included puddles and hillsides that looked alike to someone out for a casual stroll. To protect this special place, Pehek asked that I not reveal it here. But she encourages readers to visit the duskies in the Staten Island Greenbelt (check out the June 1 “Amphibian Adventures” program!), where they are plentiful.

I invited my old friend, Laura Conaway, and her wife, Sarah Goodyear (whose photos you’re enjoying – click to enlarge), on a salamander safari. Also joining were Laura and Sarah’s son, Nate, and Laura’s brother, Brian. Both Laura and Sarah are writers, and I got to know Laura when she edited a number of my Village Voice stories. She’s now a web editor with The Bryant Park Project at National Public Radio.

After a few wrong turns on my bike and direction checks by cell phone with the very-patient Pehek, we met up and walked the edge of a wood, never leaving the sounds of traffic and Latin music far behind. A small pack of sad-faced stray dogs slowly wound their way single-file up through hillside outcroppings in single file while Northern Flicker woodpeckers busy on fallen logs below. Baseballs were oddly placed in the crotches of locust, dogwood, and oak branches. Glass was ubiquitous. Some boulders were cracked and slivered; tell-tale bullet shell casings lay beneath them.

We turned over logs as we went. Millipedes here, pillbugs (aka rolly pollies) there, but no salamanders. I was starting to feel foolish. Laura continued to record, I continued to stall.

Finally, Brian exclaimed, “Found one!” From that point on, we found duskies and more common redback salamanders under every log in a small area. No wonder Pehek was so cautious about protecting the duskies’ coordinates: on the entire island of Manhattan, this species’ habitat can be measured in yards.

The salamanders were still when held, but quite fleet of foot on the ground. They have very muscular hind legs, which are a distinguishing characteristic second in prominence only to their muddy, dark gray-brown camouflage pigmentation. They are known to be excellent leapers. Subtler differences include a pale line from the eye to the corner of the mouth and an immobile jaw – they lift their heads to open their mouths.

The duskies felt cool in my palm (they don’t grow larger than five inches) for the few seconds I held them before I returning them to the wet ground, lest their skin dry.

Not so camouflaged now. Photo by Sarah Goodyear

“Most salamanders like the cold. You think of cold-blooded creatures liking warmth, but they can’t handle the heat. They sort of almost pass out from your skin warmth. They’re not something you want to handle for long,” Pehek cautioned. “They need to recover in moist leaf litter or a cold stream.”

In a few weeks they’ll begin courtship, an involved affair that includes head stroking, “butterfly” forelimb movements, and tail straddling. Then the grape-like egg clusters will develop in the mud during the height of summer. By the season’s end, yellow-spotted, gilled juveniles will be scurrying about. As they mature, the spots fade and the gills are subsumed. Salamanders don’t travel far in their several years of life, hugging the same muddy spring or stream bank.

That doesn’t mean they’re equally easy to find year-round. “They like a somewhat steady temperature, so when it’s too cold they’ll burrow down and do their thing there” in the warm earth, Pehek said. “In the middle of summer, when it gets too dry, they’ll also go under ground.”

A good strategy to catch them in action, Pehek advised, is to go to their haunts after sunset with a headlamp or flashlight. “At night they’ll climb around flowering plants and shrubs looking for invertebrates to eat.”

But don’t interrupt their feeding for too long – it’s important work. “They eat the insects that break down the leaf litter, so salamanders are slowing that decay. There’s carbon sequestered in those leaves, so in a way you could say salamanders are slowing down global warming,” Pehek said.

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